Welcome to the age of austerity... fashion-style

Fashion Editor Susannah Frankel reveals why the world's top designers responded to recession with the most outlandish collections in fashion history

Saturday 31 January 2009 01:00 GMT

If the world's leading designers are to be believed, we now seem to inhabit an Elysian underworld, an earthly paradise where financial concerns are as far from our minds as, say, a desire for anything as obviously user-friendly as a classic, black jacket.

And so, what British Vogue described only months ago as "the new austere" – read play-safe (if beautiful) fashion that strives to be socially responsible and exudes a certain sobriety – has given way to less obviously pragmatic designs.

The new season decrees it is the job of fashion to provide an escape, to let unbridled fantasy and creativity run riot, safe in the knowledge that, with the economy on its knees, it is romance, opulence and individuality which will prevail.

We may not all be able to afford these clothes but we have the ability to dream about wearing them. Moreover, what is the point of a woman investing in a tailored trouser suit when work-wear is becoming increasingly irrelevant because, put bluntly, less people have a workplace to go to?

It would be misguided to draw any conclusions concerning fashion's future from the haute couture collections paraded in Paris this week. The jewel in the French fashion crown, Paris Haute Couture Week is aimed at no more than a few hundred women who have the inclination to part with thousands of pounds for a one-off, hand-made garment fitted to their every curve. This is the preserve of the super-rich and stylists of Hollywood A-listers in search of a grand statement for the Oscars. More significant is the recession's effect on the ready-to-wear collections: it may be cold outside but spring/summer's designs are making their way into stores. "If people are going to invest in fashion now, they need to know it's worth it," says Alexander McQueen. "They're not going to want to buy a cashmere coat they can wear any season, they are looking for something more individual, and from a more individual designer. Fashion is about fantasy as well as being commercial and sometimes people lose sight of that."

From McQueen we can expect impossibly elaborate, highly engineered clothing intended to make its wearer stand out: wood grain-printed all-in-ones, crystal, enamelled flowers in tulle and more.

McQueen is not alone. At Prada, home to ribbed socks, A-line skirts and round-necked sweaters, we find lightweight sweet nothings cut from what looks like gold leaf and trimmed with ribbons and bows.

At Louis Vuitton, it is maribou feathers in tropical colours and the most over-wroughtly high sandals imaginable. For Dolce & Gabbana, never a label aimed at the understated, shoulder pads just became even larger (and circular), embroideries more intricate and accessories more ornate. Then there are polyvinyl dresses that look like deflated footballs (Comme des Garcons) and others that appear to have been made out of high-end tablecloths (Vivienne Westwood, God love her), a "fur" coat of platinum blonde wigs (Maison Martin Margiela) and Elizabethan-style ruffs the size of car wheels (Gareth Pugh).

Fashion has historically flourished amid adversity, creatively if not financially. As with any cultural pursuit, when the going gets tough, the frontrunners rise to the challenge. The most celebrated work of Botticelli, which followed the Medici Bank crash in 1494, through to the Golden Age of Hollywood, the fruit of the worst financial crisis in Western history, have roots in adversity. Fashion, perhaps the most visible symbol of capitalist excess, is no exception.

It is no coincidence then that John Galliano, the creative director of Christian Dior, chose to revisit the most famous creation of the house's namesake: The New Look. Unveiled in February 1947, the New Look was possibly the most potent example of fashion excess alleviating hard times. It wasn't new at all but romantically retrogressive. As a reaction to wartime austerity and fabric rationing, Dior harked back to the Belle Epoque by sending out round-shouldered, wasp-waisted jackets and skirts so voluminous they caused an outrage. But if politicians – including Harold Wilson, then the president of the Board of Trade – criticised the frivolity and "let them eat cake"-type disregard for reality, women the world over sought out the New Look. Then, as now, only a handful would wear the originals but copies spread fast, like wildfire.

In the 1970s, the floral-printed, Edwardian-inspired designs of Laura Ashley were a quaintly British take on bucolic life in better times. More importantly, the three-day week and the winter of discontent spawned first punk and then new romanticism, both of which dictated that mainstream attire was for the middle-aged and out of touch. These were clothes for anarchists and were notable for their over-turning of convention and the fact that even the main protagonists – Westwood and her then partner Malcolm McLaren – were advocating a DIY approach that suggested style need not be bought.

Anyone courageous enough could, and did, rustle up an approximation of the look, customising second-hand finds from Oxfam and cutting up black bin-liners in a manner which makes today's slavish attachment to budget high-street fashion seem unimaginative to the point of banal.

When recession hit at the end of the 1980s, power-dressing Dynasty-style gave way to deconstruction – conceptual fashion was born. Japanese designers Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto introduced an oversized, dark and distressed aesthetic that undermined our preconceived idea of status to the point where some of their most memorable early work came peppered with holes. The bourgeois fashion establishment was, quite simply, lost for words and it was left to critics of art and architecture to wear and write about this look. Later, the Belgian designer Martin Margiela turned clothes inside out, literally sewing the shoulder pads that had come to represent the brash dress codes of the era on to the outside of clothes.

Fast-forward 20 years and, with the value of hindsight, fashion offers up a dazzling amalgamation of all these things and more, united only in an apparent disregard for convention and what is widely assumed to be the strictures of "wearable" clothing.

"We don't all want to dress like soldiers, in the same uniform, for the same price," says McQueen. "There is a viewpoint that people should play safe because they can't afford to frighten their customers but, in fact, the opposite is true. You have to push forward and realise the power of fantasy and escapism if you want to survive."

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